Puppy in the Road

The little dog looked hot, confused, and more than a bit unsure of its surroundings. I didn't even notice it until my friend pointed out why cars in the oncoming lane had slowed down. Only then did I see this little long-haired brown and white dog in the road. As people behind the wheel of cars will do, those behind the woman in the SUV who had stopped got impatient. She stuck her arm out the window frantically as an old man in a little car behind her cut over to the left lane to zip past, unaware of the little dog meandering out into the middle of the street.

I flashed back to one of the darker days of my college years, a day I don't like to think about very often. It was a Summer afternoon, but since some of our friends worked in the offices at our school, we used it as a central meeting place before heading out to see a movie. Because I live in Long Island, I was the last to meet my buddies in Queens. As I walked down the hallway, they gathered around something on the floor. My friend Rey had witnessed a hit and run on the Van Wyck Expressway, and retrieved the victim, a small black puppy.

It lay panting in his Art Bin, basically a plastic fishing tackle box with a logo on it that allowed stores to gouge art students and charge more for it. Without Rey's supplies, it was just the right size. We were all kids then, most of us barely in our 20s. No one knew what to do. There was no real internet, no way to locate a local animal hospital without making phone calls, something that didn't occur to us at the time. Some people were antsy to make the movie, and were sure the animal was done for anyway. We couldn't just leave it. There had to be someone in the area that could help. This trumped any plans we had.

Rey drove, while I held the box with the creature on my lap. Every once in a while we'd hit a bump, and it would let out a mournful whine. “Shh...shh...it's okay,” I'd say, not really knowing how to comfort a dog. I grew up around cats, and the dogs I knew always chased me, but I couldn't bear to see any creature suffer such pain. After about 15 or 20 minutes of searching, we spotted a vet, and found a parking spot. Inside, we explained the situation, turned the puppy over, and left. Our friends would later tell us that they likely put the animal to sleep. But we didn't stick around either way to find out, so the possibility at least exists that they were able to save it, and find a home for it.

Rushing home from a parade last weekend to help my mom get her ailing cat Cubby some emergency care, I was reminded of another unpleasant anecdote. Our friend Bill, an 84-year-old trumpet player, was recalling with regret a cat his wife had until it was 19-years-old. She had bad arthritis, and moved slowly, but she was still alive. Unfortunately, running late for a band gig back in the days when he could still drive, Bill jumped in his car and backed up without looking, forgetting that the cat would sleep under the car on a hot day. As soon as the back tire went over it, he realized with horror what he'd done. The cat had made it 19 years only to be run over. I hate when he tells that story, and usually interrupt to remind him that he's told us already.

This brings us back to my lunch break on Friday afternoon. I slowed down, unsure of how to proceed. The old man, fortunately, stopped when the lady stuck her arm out the window. I was impressed with this role reversal. Often, it's younger people in SUVs who leap frog on roads and expressways, unable to pause for the slightest delay. They'll cut into shoulders, and even if you leave room for a car to merge in front of you, they'll greedily stay on the shoulder until they can get in front of another car, further up in the line of traffic, as though they're gaining that much. It's annoying. As for me, I pulled off into a parking lot when my buddy, sensing my indecisiveness, suggested as much. By the time we got out of the car, there were several people in the road, coaxing the dog back to the other side of the street, and cars had completely stopped.

I was glad to see such compassion; it's rare. I can't tell you how many times people in our area swerve around geese making their way across a street, or how often I've seen the absolutely destroyed ruins of one of those birds splattered across the road. I'm mindful of the sudden appearance of any animal, from squirrels to raccoons to domestic creatures like cats and dogs, because that's just as unpredictable as a traffic cop with a radar gun on a side street. Especially when you're on a back road with yards and wooded areas, anything can appear at any time. I know it's human nature to be in a hurry, especially during commuter hours, but getting somewhere on time or slightly less late is never worth the life of an innocent creature. Once at my old job, I heard and felt something bounce under my car while I was driving through the parking lot. I wasn't going that fast, but still had the sickening feeling that I might have gone over a rabbit. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw nothing. I got out and walked around. I even looked underneath my car. There was no blood, no fur, and no evidence of anything. Maybe some kid threw a tennis ball under there and that's what I heard, but I didn't even see that. I just know that I hated the feeling that there was even a possibility I'd gone over something. It's like waiting to make a right turn while looking left at traffic, pulling out when it's clear, and stopping short because someone on foot or on a bike is crossing in front of you from the right. That's a scary moment right there. Our friend Bill told us another tale of one of the last times he drove, when a city worker jumped back at the last second, and only then did Bill realize he was inches away from clipping this guy who was working on his truck by the side of the road. With one eye made of glass and the sight in his remaining real eye suffering from macular degeneration, it's best that he finally stopped driving. I might have stopped driving twenty or so years earlier when he went over that cat, if it had been me.

The road is a dangerous place for man or beast, no matter where we find ourselves out there. Drive carefully, my friends....


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